The building, energy and transport sectors all have to comply with the stringent, industry-specific requirements for reducing their carbon footprint, which are set in stone internationally. So why not also in the civil construction industry?

This is one of the big questions that we, along with probably others in the civil construction industry, ask ourselves. Especially, when we consider that most civil construction projects actually shall support the three above-mentioned industries, including the transport industry, which is among the heavy carbon emitters. It is even more remarkable when we consider the potential for CO2 reduction in civil construction projects and how much low-hanging fruit that is more than ripe for picking.

The latest quay expansion totalling 20,000 m2 at the Port of Aalborg clearly demonstrates the rationale of incorporating sustainability as a design factor right from the start in all civil construction projects. The quay extension is the result of an open partnership between Port of Aalborg, Aarsleff and COWI based on early market dialogue, collaboration based on trust and ongoing project development. The benchmarks for the project have been defined from the start: 1) To execute the project to the highest quality standards for mutual economic benefit, 2) To raise the level of sustainability in the project and advance the industry, and 3) To create space for the testing and development of new collaborative relationships, work processes, products and machinery.

CO2 emissions from all project components are continuously calculated during the project development and compared with a reference project defined as “the project we would have constructed if we had proceeded as usual” – that is to say, with methods, solutions and materials that we have applied to similar port projects in recent years. Although the calculations are obviously subject to uncertainty, even with this reservation the figures speak volumes.

The civil construction collaboration for the quay expansion has, according to calculations, resulted in a total CO2 reduction of no less than 40 per cent compared with the reference project. Moreover, significant technical improvements and optimisations have been achieved without compromising on durability and robustness – for example, the load-bearing capacity of the quay structure has been increased by 50 per cent. All without incurring significant additional costs.

A number of the results are largely due to the collaboration between partners, in which the developer, contractor and consulting engineer have been involved throughout the process, each contributing our core competencies along the way, with the opportunity for ongoing modifications. It is precisely this form of collaboration that has created the opportunity for the development of ideas and the option of more sustainable solutions. Three partners pulling in the same direction produce greater results collectively than separately.

Clearly, by focusing on the individual elements, you can achieve big savings. For example, by using HVO diesel, recycled materials and alternative concrete types, which in our case each equate to CO2 savings of more than 80 per cent compared with the reference project. We had expected a considerable reduction in advance, but not at this level.

As we see it, the lack of requirements for the civil construction industry represents a gigantic own-goal from a climate perspective.
However, is it up to the politicians or industry actors like us to set the course? Well, opinion is somewhat divided on that. One thing is certain: we cannot just sit back and wait – we must work together to act now. One starting point could be a requirement to measure e.g. CO2 emissions for all public civil works projects to create an understanding of the costs in the CO2 account. This part alone has been an eye-opener.

So, returning to our opening question! Why have the right conditions for making the civil construction industry greener not been established? Why is there no limit on CO2 emissions per square metre of road, quay or rail? Why are there no limit values for materials and requirements to use recycled materials?

Is it due to a lack of will? No, we do not believe it is. We think that it is more a lack of awareness of the potential. Knowledge of the possibilities, the already existing technologies and not least that greener civil construction projects can easily sustain an attractive balance between the environment, economy and quality.

The quay extension example is not an attempt to create a formula, as we have only worked on improving individual elements in the process and applied standard ones in others. Although, we are on unfamiliar ground and learning by trial and error, clearly, there is potential for much more.

Instead, we wish to share our experiences to create reflection and discussion in the industry, where we are all working towards the same goal: to develop and advance the conditions for making civil construction projects greener through collaboration. Whether it is us in the civil construction industry or the politicians, who first find common ground and venture to define the ambitious goals, only time will tell.